ARCADIA — Emotions run high in DeSoto County when it comes to potential mining operations by the large fertilizer producer Mosaic.

The DeSoto County Board of Commissioners held an informational workshop Tuesday focusing on the county’s current phosphate mining regulations. It was part of a dispute settlement from this year between DeSoto County and Mosaic, following the county’s denial of Mosaic’s request last year to reclassify thousands of acres of farmland it owns to industrial mining.

After commissioners denied Mosaic’s rezoning request, the Fortune 500 company requested a special magistrate to hear from both sides and to recommend terms of a possible settlement. That was an alternative to the company bringing potential legal action against DeSoto County for claimed infringement of its property rights.

The settlement included a series of informational workshops through 2023, at which time Mosaic would again apply for rezoning permits to mine phosphate in DeSoto County. The first workshop was Tuesday.

Mosaic owns around 18,000 acres of farmland in DeSoto — a portion of which is not zoned for mining — and another 9,000 acres in the area that is already zoned for phosphate mining.

County Attorney Donald Conn walked the commissioners and public Tuesday through details involved in the county’s phosphate mining ordinance. That includes issues like zoning, permitting, environmental reclamation and liability insurance for any damages done to the area’s environment.

Under the county’s current ordinance, there’s a price tag of at least $20 million for environmental damage.

Mosaic officials were present at Tuesday’s workshop but didn’t present information or comment.

The insurance

“How much money does Mosaic have to put up front,” said Kerry Bowers, a DeSoto County resident. “It sounds like they are preparing for not if it happens, but more like when it happens. Twenty million dollars isn’t going to go to far to clean up Peace River. It’s not going to go to far to clean up our county.

“Why are we even allowing the damage,” Bowers said. “I just don’t get it. You know they’re going to run it off into Horse Creek. What about the (long-term) damage to the county? What about us? What about the residents? What do we get?”

The reclamation

Part of Mosaic’s strip-mining process is to rebuild the land after mining it through a process called reclamation. According to the company, the land is returned to its natural condition when the phosphate is removed.

Mosaic officials have noted that state rules dictate every acre that is mined and disturbed has to be reclaimed.

“The reclaimed land is a joke,” Bowers said at Tuesday’s workshop. “It’s not going to help our watersheds. Sure, they plant trees but there’s nothing in the ground left to help them grow; they just die.”

Not just DeSoto residents

Michael Anthony drove from Englewood in Charlotte County to express his concerns at the workshop.

“This issue is vital and it seems it would be responsible on the part of government to request that people (government officials and others from surrounding counties) that have potentially a cause and effect of your decisions ... that they should be here,” Anthony said. “This skinny little state is a watershed of a huge proportion and to think that having a mining company like mosaic here where sinkholes happen routinely, is not responsible.”

In 2016, a sinkhole opened beneath a Mosaic gypsum slurry stack in Mulberry. It drained around 200 million gallons of what Mosaic called “process water” into the Florida Aquifer, setting off a health scare for some nearby residents. Gypsum is a byproduct of converting phosphate rock to fertilizer.

Mosaic and Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials have said there is no evidence of off-site impacts from that spill.

Charlotte County resident Cynthia Compton also attended the workshop. She questioned if DeSoto County had a way of containing water that she asserted could potentially be polluted by the mining.

“Will the water be contained to DeSoto County,” Compton asked. “The Peace River flows into Charlotte Harbor, into the Gulf of Mexico which affects Lee County, Charlotte County, Sarasota County (and others). Are those commissioners going to be invited to have a say in what you guys decide?”

Who decides whether to approve rezoning?

DeSoto County Attorney Donald Conn said that decision would ultimately be left up to DeSoto’s commissioners.

“Either fortunately or unfortunately, the law puts the responsibility here with the board,” Conn said. “That’s the law.”

Future outreach

DeSoto County Commissioner J.C. Deriso wants to try to establish a multi-county group to act as an advisory panel or informational group to work with DeSoto.

“If there was a way to get some stakeholders who are from different counties who could weigh in on some advisory or some type of (tri-county) commission that was concerned about the Peace River watershed and could shed some additional light, I could only see it as an advantage.”

Deriso told the Sun that Conn advised him to present the idea at the next Board of County Commissioners regular meeting for consideration.

That meeting is Nov. 19 at 3 p.m., 201 E. Oak St. in Arcadia.

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